What matters in advertising this year
My favorite law is Amara’s Law. It says: "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. For this industry especially, it is apt as Adland loves to focus on embracing what’s next and ignores how we can use what we’ve had for a long time.
advertising plan picture by Tobias Dziuba / by Tobias Dziuba
A huge part of my role at Zenith is advising people on what matters. It’s to find what we’ve not yet really digested the power of yet. It’s to ensure myself and those around me are continually and thoroughly informed about everything that is new, but often so we can make confident decisions to not do things for the moment. It involves obsessing with what is changing but also more prosaically taking in all the elements that have not changed, as unglamorous as it sounds.
With that in mind here are some opportunities I see for the year ahead.
Rethink around what we already have
If I could offer one piece of advice for our industry for the rest of this year, it would be to first get the basics right before being seduced by the shiny and the new. Most people reading this have had the internet now for about 18 years. We’ve had it fast and cheaply on our phones for 12. We keep being shocked that e-commerce or m-commerce is growing each year, that somehow we’re watching video on phones, or doing banking that way.
This isn’t hard to see coming and it’s not going away, yet the world around us still seems to consider these things as if we’ve already gotten them right. We have not. We’ve taken everything we’ve done before and pulled it through newer, smaller frames.
Basics should come before the frivolities. If a clothing company wants to explore the power of blockchain then let’s hope it’s got a best-in-class mobile site first. If an airline has a mood-sensing blanket, great, but let’s hope it’s not built on an operating system that doesn’t work. Simple things are often boring, they are always unsexy, but they are not easy to do and they are vital.
Once we’ve got that right, we should be reimagining what we can do. Making new ad units based around the new possibilities of what is possible, not around what we’ve made before and best know how to buy and measure.
Remove friction and complexity
The real beauty of the internet and screens around us is that every surface can pull through data from others and make customer journeys shorter. Every Instagram ad should be stoppable with a click of the finger. Every print ad could use a QR code to become immediately buyable or bookable. We need to recreate new experiences around the possibilities of mobile. Why can’t I pay the bill with my IM app? Why can’t I book a table from within Instagram? What about booking nail appointments from Google search results or hotels and flights? I wrote about this four years ago and we’ve seen little progress.
In the modern age, we need to help people spend their money, we need to help them go to events they can’t be bothered to look to find, to upgrade at hotels but in seconds or to spend air miles in seconds. We need to form more simple choice architecture with mobile hero images, to using plug-in layers like Venmo, PayPal or Klarna. Make it easy.
What we used to call celebrity endorsement is now called influencer marketing or micro-influencer marketing. It has its roots in co-creation, authentic storytelling but now seems to degenerate into good-looking people simply holding things. I’ve worked on many campaigns where it’s worked a treat and for the right brands, when done well, it will continue to. But our industry would do better not think it’s the cure for everything and to focus on other stuff that can sell. Like better made ads placed in the right contexts, for one.
From channels to contexts
As all media becomes digital, we’d be better off establishing that “the internet” is a pipe - not a media vessel. Now we know more about people, the place, time and person, we can think in terms of contexts to reach people, not whether they happen to get stuff they love via Wi-Fi, 4G or Electromagnetic waves.
There is this obsession that companies are dying faster than ever, it’s not based on much data, but it forms a powerful narrative that drives a sense of chaos and uncertainty. It then drives another narrative and the reality that CMOs are being replaced in roles faster than ever.
This means our industry is now obsessed with making changes and measuring things that happen most quickly, that can be measured most accurately and most easily. We see the industry want to drain the funnel not build a brand, to measure likes and shares, not brand awareness or likability, we’ve become more bothered about attributing success and doubling down on what “works”, not actually creating success in what actually matters.
In the spirit of back to basics, I’d love to see our industry accept that much of this isn’t the way to build a brand that can continue to charge a premium and to help our world create campaigns that are successful beyond the spreadsheet.
I’d also love more decisiveness, fast-moving and complex times feel tough, but they demand a strong sense of shared mission, a clear, concise strategy that is known by all, and then fast, often gut-based decisions to get there. Too many people find too much comfort in delaying hard decisions.
We’ve assumed people will be ever more attached to their phones, spend more time swiping, liking, sharing and caring – but what if we are wrong? This piece on peak media explains more.
I’m not sure when our industry will wake up to the fact that essentially millennials have no money and won’t for a long, long time. Older folk have all the wealth, are more influential in what others buy and they are going to carry on both staying alive but actively living and spending money for longer than anyone in our industry expects. While this happens, a younger generation will be saddled with even more bills for their healthcare. But yes, by all means, try to make 25-year-olds buy your new SUV.
Relevance not personalization
A quick look to the ads served to me show me that most companies have too much data, but know me too little. There is false precision to the ads that think I want to buy structural steel, a catheter, right through to the very same shampoo I only just bought. We have this idea that people want personalized ads but I’m not sure that’s true. I think people want to see more relevant ads, more helpful ads, but most precise ads feel a bit like someone trying to guess your name. It's more polite to accept you don’t know.
Again, in terms of back to basics, let’s focus less on “how can we reach absolutely the right person at defiantly the right time?” and miss. Rather that we aim for broader strokes. If I appear to like expensive shampoo, why not serve me brand ads for companies that make expensive moisturizer too?
Quality reach is hard
The biggest problem facing many larger brands isn’t fragmentation, per se, but how you can reach large numbers of people quickly. We could once buy top-rated shows, some popular print titles and see nationwide reach come fast (albeit not cheaply). Digital media promise the same number of eyeballs but it is more complex and feels like it never has the same impact. We appear to see online publishing split in two. Quality, crafted, expensive, premium, hard-to-track branded content or advertorials that deliver punch but not reach, and at the opposite remnant inventory sold cheaply, with lots of targeting, lots of data on how they perform, but that end up serving cheap-looking inventory. I don’t know why we can’t focus on something between the two – a way to use decent data, premium, impactful media, without specific craft needed to reach people at scale and a sensible cost per view.
Technology is amazing. Please can we stop hoping to do as little as we can to take what we’ve done before to make it work ok? Instead, can we get a bit more excited and apply creativity, ambition and boldness to how we do all aspects of our role?
Tom Goodwin is Zenith Media's executive vice president and head of innovation and a regular columnist for The Drum.